Breast-Feeding and the "Missing Girls"

A new working paper by Seema Jayachandran and Ilyana Kuziemko offers another explanation for the “missing girls” phenomenon observed in some developing countries. Breast-feeding both improves health outcomes and temporarily decreases fertility. Jayachandran and Kuziemko argue that women with a preference for male children may wean daughters earlier in the hopes of restoring their fertility and conceiving a son, resulting in worse health outcomes for girls. The authors find that daughters are weaned sooner than sons and conclude that the breastfeeding factor explains 14 percent of India’s missing girls. (Related: even in the U.S., some Asian families exhibit a “son preference.”) (HT: Karen Grepin) [%comments]

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  1. Jenny says:

    While breastfeeding does improve the chance for healthy outcomes for babies, I thought that old wives’ tale about breastfeeding as a contraceptive had been put to rest a long time ago.

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  2. Caitlyn says:

    Breastfeeding as contraceptive is not necessarily an old wives’ tale. There are certain conditions which must be met – if I remember right, the baby has to get all its nourishment from breastfeeding, and has to be fed on demand – and even then it doesn’t reliably work for all women, but it does work pretty well for many women.

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  3. Quixotequest says:

    It appears that lactational amenorrhoea method or LAM is a genuine and 98-99 per cent effective form of birth control providing that it is followed on a rigorous breastfeeding schedule coupled with monitoring other bodily signs like menstruation, body temperature and cervical mucus. It appears that the success probability falls 10 per cent when relying on the monitoring of menstruation alone. LAM appears to be advised only for when a suckling infant is 6 or fewer months of age, and supplementing with other contraception methods thereafter.

    http://www.babycentre.co.uk/baby/breastfeeding/contraceptionexpert/

    The CDC appears to keep various U.S. data of postpartum health via their PRAMS program. It seems that breastfeeding is linked in several ways to improved health depending on how long a mother does it. Among some ethnicities (caucasian especially) and age ranges (<20) there is a propensity to give up breastfeeding earlier which correlates to lower baby healthfulness.

    http://www.cdc.gov/PRAMS/index.htm

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  4. Harald says:

    There’s a huge difference between “reduces fertility” and “contraceptive”. I wouldn’t use breast feeding to *prevent* pregnancy, but when you measure across a population the reduction appears.

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  5. Beth says:

    Yes, studies have shown that exclusive breastfeeding can delay the return of menses and fertility for a few months.

    This theory of the gender gap is fascinating, and one I would’ve never thought of. Thanks!

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  6. Kay says:

    Education is the issue that sticks out for me here. Is it plausible that these women *know* breastfeeding can decrease fertility?

    Another idea: perhaps the women weaned sooner not because they wanted to restore fertility as soon as possible, but because they were disappointed with having a girl and were averse to the “bonding” aspect of breastfeeding?

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  7. kip says:

    @ Kay “Is it plausible that these women *know* breastfeeding can decrease fertility?”

    Of course it is plausible. I would even say it is probable.

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  8. Hannah says:

    Breastfeeding in traditional cultures is an extremely effective contraceptive, generally leading to spacing of 2 to 3 years.When babies are held by their mothers all day and sleep next to them at night, the babies nurse several times an hour for short feedings. It is this frequency that has the contraceptive effect.

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